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When did you realize you were black?

I finally decided to get out of bed on a Sunday afternoon having spent the past day and a half wallowing in self-pity and regret. I thought that travelling abroad was fun. I should have made new friends by now, settled in and been on a see-the-city road-trip. Instead, I was just sad and alone, reminiscing on what could have been, not knowing what to do next. The realization of my having left everything and everyone I knew behind brought a crippling grief that completely overwhelmed all the enthusiasm I had felt when I got onto the plane a couple of days prior. But I decided I wouldn’t just lay there and die. So I got up and headed to the convenience store that I had seen the day before. I walked out into the summer sun. The neighborhood looked completely different from the neighborhoods back home. Dust roads were replaced by well tarred and well-maintained roads with properly demarcated sidewalks; the poorly arranged, ground-floor houses you'd see back home were replaced by tall apartment buildings, each fenced and distinguishable from the other by color; in the place of kids who would be playing in the roads, running around and screaming were kids playing, under parental supervision, in the designated “kids-play ground” filled with swings and slides and whatnot. Noticing all the differences brought another wave of sadness, of melancholy. I realized that I was truly miles away from home. I tried to steady my step as I walked down the street, pushing down the tears that felt ready to burst out any second. I plugged in my earphones, putting on the expressionless face that I put on when I did not want people to talk to me as J Cole’s “Change” rang in my ears. I noticed a group of people walking towards me but paid no attention to them as I sang and believed and truly hoped for the fruition of the lyrics, “My intuition is telling me there’ll be better days.”

Suddenly there was a shadow in front me. And then it didn’t move. I raised my head to find 3 teenage boys standing around me: one standing right in front of me, the other two on either side. I took out my earphones to say the only Turkish I had learnt off of Google translator: “Türkçe konuşamıyorum.” I can’t speak Turkish. The boy in front of me mumbled something I did not understand, stood there and saluted while the other guys tried touching my hair, pulling my hand, rubbing the skin back and forth as though trying to see if I had just painted the brown color on, trying to see if it would eventually come off. Then they all hugged me and walked off laughing, a triumphant laughter that signified some sort of victory, some sort of achievement. That is the first time I realized I was black. And over the next few weeks, there would be more incidents that further solidified a fact I had known all my life but never truly understood: I am black. It was the stares and whispers in a room when I walked in, people running away when they noticed me walking behind them, people standing up when I sat next to them on the bus, people taking pictures on the train… I had finally realized that I am black, that I stood out.

It’s a bit laughable to say that I only realized that I am black when I came to Turkey because clearly, I have been black all my life. But, you see, I learnt that being black means different things in the world: In the USA, black means you are a criminal, that you are unintelligent, that you must have stolen the car you drive, that you cannot possibly own the mansion you live in. In England, black means you are an immigrant because a true Brit could never be black, that you are poor, that you live in South London where the knife crime rate is high because black and crime go together. In Italy, black means you are a foreigner who deserves to be called a monkey whenever you do something that displeases a local. In Turkey, black means you are from a place where food and water are scarce. That you own pet lion, that you are Somalian. That you are blessed to be in this country and see buildings because you spend all your time hunting, that you could not possibly be as intelligent as a Turk. Everywhere in the world, save Africa, black is labelled on sight. Africa is the only place where black is human before being black. And so we are never taught that we are black nor do we ever realize it until we step outside. And because of that, we are never taught what to do when we finally realize we are black, we are not taught how to handle. What do I do, how do I react when the realization that the color of my skin matters is starring me in the face?

To say that I struggled with this, not knowing how to deal with all of it, would be an understatement: what was I to do when the whole room tensed up with uneasiness the moment I stepped in? When people preferred standing to sitting next to me as though they were afraid that they would catch “black”? When people would run away when they saw me walking behind them?

And so I, too, began to mildly resent being black, for which I felt slightly guilty. I wore my skin proudly, but only loosely because it often felt like it was never the right fit. I began to conform, to be what you were expected to be when you are black in this country. Because you see, when you are black, you are expected to make people feel more comfortable with their being uncomfortable with your being black. You are expected to take blame for their discomfort and therefore it is on you to take steps to make sure they aren’t as uncomfortable, to make them feel that it is okay to feel uncomfortable. You are supposed to be impressed when someone tells you that they had a friend from Africa because it is something worthy of praise. You are supposed to know Ifemelu, a Nigerian girl, even though you are from Zambia, because all Africans know each other. You are supposed to be okay with being a spectacle, the center of attention because people have never seen a black person. You are supposed to be okay with taking pictures with people you don’t know because it is rude not to.

And so I did that, I sunk into a shell. I tried to make them feel comfortable. I left empty seats on buses empty because the person who had occupied the next seat might have felt uncomfortable had I sat there. I walked a fair distance away from every crowd because people felt uncomfortable to see black people walk behind them. I laughed less loudly despite having a 1000 decibel laughter because laughing too loud would make people uncomfortable. I shied away from speaking too loudly on the phone because it made them uncomfortable to hear a black person speak another language. I tried to be less black. My being black felt like a heavy load that my entire body had to carry around. By the end of the first month, I was tired and frustrated. I was angry. I was angry because I felt as though to every passing stranger, I was nothing but black. I was not Chipo, I was the black kid. I was angry and I wanted more people to aim the anger at.

I became ultra-sensitive. I looked around on trains and buses to see who was starring, who was taking pictures, who was whispering after starring just so I could add them onto the list on people I did not know but resented. I listened for anything that suggested that I was being treated differently. I went out less. I spoke less. It was as though being black had become this separate entity that was preventing me from living, this thing that was out to make my life harder. I was angry because I wanted to be treated as a human before being treated as a black person. I was angry because it was being black that caused all this. And so for months, I harbored resentment for people I did not even know. For months, I wished I could be different.

And that’s what happens when you are not taught how to handle being black...let me rephrase that: how to handle realizing that you are black. This is what a lot of people upon whom it has dawned for the very first time in their lives that the color of their skin matters go through but never talk about: the confusion, the insecurity, the frustration, the feeling of carrying a burden. It took all this and more for me to finally ask the question “why?” Why did I care so much? Why did it matter if people felt uncomfortable with who and what I am, with color of my skin? Why was I the one to carry the burden? Why was I the one to make them okay with being uncomfortable with black skin? Why was I the one who had to change myself? Why was it not them who had to make the change? Why was it not them who ought to feel terrible about being the way they were? It took this, questioning the premise, to be okay and fully content with being black in places where it is met with snares and scourge, for my skin to feel like the perfect fit, to be comfortable with people being uncomfortable, to be black, and unapologetically so, in every sense of the word. Because black, or any skin color, should never be an obstacle nor a burden. It is identity, of which we should all be proud. If I am nothing, I am a still black boy from Choma, Zambia. And I am proud of that.

I am not sure who I am writing this to. Because I know some of you will never realize that you are black, and that is okay. But do not live in the falsehood that the fact that you are black does not matter out there. If you take anything away from this, it is to never be apologetic for whatever makes you you, whatever makes you unique, whatever makes you stand out. Be it the color of your skin, your height, your hair, your clothes, your taste in music, your opinion… whatever it is, never apologize for it. Wear it on you. Wear it like a signature scent. Wear it so they can see it from a mile away. Wear it around those who feel uncomfortable, perhaps even because they feel uncomfortable. Wear it as a part of you. Wear it proudly. Let it be what you are identified by. Never be afraid to make people comfortable because it is upon those who feel uncomfortable with who and what you are to carry the burden, never you. Be unapologetically, uncompromisingly and undeniably YOU.

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